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The Problematics ‘National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation’ is Maybe More Family Friendly Than You Remember

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Not to belabor the obvious, but most people — okay, most Boomers, of which I’m one (a late Boomer, I insist!) — understand that “objectionable”It is part the National Lampoon brand. Understanding being a pretext, an excuse, or something similar, for not moving for the objectionability films with this rubric in the titles. 

NatLamp, an indirect spinoff from Harvard Lampoon humor magazine, was the periodical that published the infamous “If You Don’t Buy This Magazine, We’ll Kill This Dog”1973 cover. National Lampoon’s Animal House set a standard, so to speak, for loutish behavior and boorish humor in youth-oriented films. (Unlike Revenge of the Nerds and another of The Problematics, which were both influenced by Animal House, it didn’t condone rape.

So, the most shocking thing I discovered when revisiting National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, released 22 years ago this month, is how relatively, well, toothless it is. 

It was, now that I think of it, probably an organic development. While the first installment in the Vacation series, predictably titled National Lampoon’s Vacation (1983) had an R rating, the follow-up, 1985’s European Vacation, went for PG-13 because PG-13 was the way studios wanted their family comedies. The producers wanted to ensure that the movie was rewatchable as it was a Christmas movie.  Even though Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life was a box office bomb, its resurrection on television introduced the idea of the cinematic Christmas Perennial. And, just like the slightly-raunchy-but-sweet 1993 A Christmas Story, that’s a status the producers of Christmas Vacation no doubt wanted. 

So for much of its running time, the movie’s doofus humor, centered on the varied forms of cluelessness manifested by Chevy Chase’s hapless patriarch Clark Griswold, is woolly and pratfall-heavy. The movie’s title is “An Intimate View of the Movie” from the very beginning. “nothing but the best”Studio production. R&B and gospel great Mavis Staples sings the theme song, penned by Brill Building hitmakers Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil. (They wrote it). “On Broadway!”Yes, they did write it with Lieber und Stoller. But still! They wrote “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling!” Okay, they wrote it with Phil Spector, but…oh never mind) The screenplay is pure John Hughes — his National Lampoon piece, “Vacation ’58,”Vacation was his first film. In 1987, he directed Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, which is a classic holiday film. E.G. was part of the four-star cast. The first batch of in-laws included John Randolph, Diane Ladd and Marshall. 

The movie’s opening scenes reestablish Clark’s near-psychotic insistence that his family is not completely, or at least relatively, dysfunctional, as he drives the clan out to a forested area to cut down the Griswold Family Christmas Tree. En route they get into auto hijinks with rednecks (there’s a bit of this in Planes, Trains as well) and then the Griswold’s ever-rotating daughter, here played by Juliette Lewis, gets frozen-eye. 

The way-too-big tree the family brings home captures the attention of the Griswold’s snooty quasi-yuppie neighbors, played by Julia Louis-Dreyfus (Seinfeld was in its very first season) and Nicholas Guest (yes, Christopher’s brother, and better seen with Christopher in the 1980 Western The Long Riders). These characters don’t really do anything villainous except express extreme distaste for the family next door, and yet one of them will be obliged to endure a mauling-by-squirrel at film’s end. The barely-motivated comeuppance is reflective of a certain indifference in the creative process — box ticking, I think they call it nowadays.

In the same vein, when Clark goes Christmas shopping, trying to find something nice and sheer for Bev D’Angelo’s Mrs. Griswold, Christmas Vacation reprises the homina-homina Christie Brinkley stuff. This time, she is a brunette. Merry, or Mary, is a department store sales representative.Nicolette Scorsese plays Merry, a department store sales rep. Her dramatic slender neckline and high-rise something draws Clark to distraction. Rusty soon notices her. Rusty is played here by a young Johnny Galecki. This scene must have been good training for the actor. “Holy moly! A GIRL” faces he’d be obliged to make through much of the run of The Big Bang Theory. Later, when Clark fantasizes about the swimming pool he’s going to bestow on the fam once he gets his much-anticipated bonus (and guess what the plot twist on that might be), Mary (or maybe it’s Merry?) In Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Phoebe Cates’ pool business reappears. This is both pro forma, and a little strange. Clark is a man who is most clearly established as a family man and a wife guy. Yet, his adolescent horniness has not diminished at this late stage of his development. 

There’s nothing to be concerned about. Forty-two minutes in, Randy Quaid’s Cousin Eddie shows up with wife and two kids and RV. Things are about to get really stale!

Well, a little rank — can’t say REALLY. After falling in a deep well, Ruby Sue thought her eyes had crossed. But then she was kicked and pushed by a mule. There’s a dog named Snots that Eddie prizes on account of its unusually large genitals. Eddie’s male child is fixing to go into carnival work when he gets older. And so on. These jokes are called “classist”It is a way of giving them too much credit. 

This holds true when the really old relatives, an aunt and uncle played by William Hickey, and Mae Questel respectively, show up.  Hickey does a low-rent retweet of his 1985 performance as a doddering don in 1985’s Prizzi’s Honor. Questel, who once voiced adorable cartoon sex bomb Betty Boop, remains adorable as she cycles through a few hard-of-hearing japes, followed by a few touched-with-the-funny-kind-of-dementia gags. 

When a cat in a box shows up, you know it’s doomed; when Clark gets out the carving knife, you don’t necessarily know the turkey’s going to explode, but you don’t kick yourself for having not predicted it. After all the mishaps with the Christmas tree, the Christmas lights, the Christmas turkey, and the Christmas relatives, the family’s fortunes take an unlikely turn, and while Clark may not end up as the luckiest man in Bedford Falls, his family likely will get that swimming pool. And that’s all, folks.

Veteran critic Glenn Kenny reviews‎ new releases at RogerEbert.com, the New York Times, and, as befits someone of his advanced age, the AARP magazine. He blogs occasionally at Some Came Running. He tweets, mostly in jest at @glenn__kenny. Hanover Square Press published the acclaimed book Made Men: A Story of Goodfellas in 2020.

National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation can be viewed on HBO Max

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